22 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 47

Bruce Anderson

Any new novel by Allan Massie is an eager- ly awaited event. This year, there have been not one, but two. Antony (Sceptre, £16.99) is not quite as good as Augustus, and Shadows of Empire (Sinclair Stevenson, £16.99) falls a little short of A Question of Loyalties. But they both soar thousands of feet above the meretriciousness of the average contemporary novel. Mr Massie has a great book or two in him, if he could afford the time to write them.

This has been a good year for history books. Richard Fletcher's The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity (HarperCollins, £25) is history as it ought to be written: fine prose and a vast canvas. Mr Fletcher has taken a Gibbonian theme; this is a book which Gibbon would have enjoyed.

Paul Johnson (A History of the American People, Weidenfeld, £25) has also chosen a big canvas, but his temperament is not exactly Gibbonian. This is a perverse, ram- bunctious and formidable book. In the case of Coolidge and Reagan, Mr Johnson's views ought to become the conventional wisdom; as regards Franklin Roosevelt, our author launches a kamikaze raid on the conventional wisdom which would be entirely persuasive, except for the evidence. But Mr Johnson never loses contact with the grandeur of his subject. The sheer scale of America is embodied in his pages; he pays a passionate tribute to the glory and the dream.